Spartacus Review

Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a slave trained as a gladiator at the school of Batiatus (Peter Ustinov). After the slaves revolt, Spartacus, his wife Varinia (Jean Simmons) – who was first given to him as a reward by his slavemasters – and ninety thousand others soon form an army. Back in Rome, Marcus Lucinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), demands the first consulship of Rome in return for crushing the slaves' revolt.

In some parallel universe, Anthony Mann directed Spartacus and we have to wonder how much different Stanley Kubrick's subsequent career would have been. But in this universe, Mann fell out with producer/star Kirk Douglas, who replaced him with Kubrick. Probably because he didn't have full control, Kubrick never regarded Spartacus as truly his own film. But what it is, however, is one of the best and most intelligent of the breed of historical epics made between the mid 50s and the mid 60s. If Gladiator looked impressive with its use of CGIs, consider this: although matte paintings and other 60s special effects were used, many of the sets in Spartacus were built full-size, and there really are thousands of extras in the battle scenes! You can see why, in just four years with the commercial failure of Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire, films such as this soon became completely uneconomical to make.

The ideal way to see Spartacus is on a big screen, preferably in 70mm – those thousands of extras look very tiny on a TV set. On a small screen, this DVD will do nicely: it's in the correct ratio (panning and scanning would be ruinous) and presents the soundtrack, including Alex North's score, to its best possible advantage. Watching the film again, you realise how well-paced it is, or at least the first half. It's a lengthy film, but each scene is on long enough to make its point and no more. It's only in the last hour that the film begins to drag a little. Kirk Douglas has always been better at playing villains or anti-heroes; as a straightforward good guy, he tends towards woodenness and is anyway outacted by some of his co-stars. Jean Simmons has an oddly English and slightly prim quality as Varinia, considering she's playing a slave girl. Her nude swim, on the other hand, was undoubtedly quite risqué for 1960. The most entertaining performances come from Peter Ustinov (who won an Oscar) as the slavemaster Batiatus and Charles Laughton as Gracchus, a liberal but very pragmatic senator, and Crassus' opponent. As the villain of the piece, Olivier gives a performance which is effective enough, though not one of his greatest. This version of the film is the one restored in 1992, which reinstated the "snails and oysters" bath scene where Crassus tries to seduce Antoninus (Tony Curtis). The soundtrack had not survived, so Curtis and Anthony Hopkins (imitating the late Olivier) had to redo their lines.

Kubrick was always very concerned with the look of his films. There are stories that he all but took over the cinematography from Russell Metty, though Metty's name remains on the credits and the subsequent Oscar. Metty is no longer here to defend himself, though suggestions that he was too conservative to accept Kubrick's suggestions should be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, he did cope with Orson Welles two years before on Touch of Evil and given Metty's earlier work his talent is not in doubt. Whoever is responsible, the result is magnificent to look at. Spartacus was shot in Technirama, a process which involved 35mm running sideways (as did VistaVision) and an anamorphic lens, which resulted in 2.35:1 35mm Scope prints or 2.2:1 70mm prints (the latter known as Super Technirama 70). As it uses a greater picture area than standard 35mm the picture quality is superior, though it's not as good as shooting on a 65mm negative. The DVD transfer is in 2.35:1, and it's very good – richly coloured with no artefacting that I could see, and a few minor jumps. There's a lack of shadow detail in some of the darker scenes, though if memory serves that's a feature of the original film.

I generally find remixing old soundtracks into Dolby Digital 5.1 inadvisable. However, Spartacus always has been in stereo – original 70mm engagements would have had a four-track magnetic track, and it was given a digital remix for the 1992 cinema reissue. Although it says 5.1, it's really 4.0 (mono surround), faithful to that original sound mix. There are quite a few directional sound effects, for example, in the salt mine in the opening scene. Left and right are also used for dialogue, something which isn't often done nowadays: when the camera angle switches, the dialogue sometimes changes speaker accordingly. The surrounds are taken up with Alex North's score, and there was no noticeable use of the subwoofer. Compared to a modern track, the sound is a little lacking in dynamic range, but considering the age of the material it's as good as you're likely to get. There are only sixteen chapters, seven in the first hour, which for such a long film is ridiculous. The DVD includes the overture, the intermission and entr'acte and playout music, which are included in the running time above: without them, the film runs about 186 minutes. These should certainly have been separately chaptered: they are certainly good to have, but I can see many people wanting to skip them.

The trailer runs 2:50, is non-anamorphic, and is in 16:9 ratio and shifted slightly upwards on the screen. It's worn less well than the feature, being washed out and dust-spotted in places. It's one of those old-fashioned "great event in the history of cinema" trailers and more than a little bombastic. The production notes briefly detail the restoration process and are worthwhile. There are also fairly standard biofilmographies of all the actors listed above plus Kubrick.

Criterion's edition is a two-disc set, with a commentary and the usual plethora of extras. That will no doubt be more expensive than this edition, and which would be best to go for depends on whether you want just the film or you would be interested in the extras as well. If the former, than this DVD would certainly do nicely.

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Last updated: 08/06/2018 19:32:51

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